The CBC’s Elliotte Friedman led off last night’s Hotstove segment on Hockey Night in Canada with news that a plan to drastically realign the NHL’s current divisional system was “gaining steam” and that some teams were saying the chances of it happening were “50-50”.
Here’s the proposed plan:
According to Friedman, each team would play a home-and-home series with the teams outside their division, with the remaining games played within the division. The first two rounds of the playoffs would also be contested within the division, the same as they were back in the days of the 21-team NHL.
The plan has both its supporters and detractors. The Blue Jackets and Red Wings would obviously be happy to play more away games that their fans could watch on TV without staying up past midnight, but Friedman says the Penguins are worried they’ll lose their in-state rivalry with the Flyers with just two games between the sides in the regular season.
For what it’s worth, I like the plan. The more playoff series between division rivals the better. Because while geography plays its part, it’s really the postseason that creates the hatred. Chicago and Vancouver aren’t close to each other, but the Blackhawks and Canucks have one of the fiercest rivalries in the NHL at the moment. Three best-of-seven series in three years will do that.
Admittedly, the current system is probably more fair. If four teams from each division are guaranteed to make the playoffs, there are going to be weak teams that qualify for the postseason while stronger teams don’t. The old Norris Division was a joke for much of the 80s, yet it still qualified four teams each year. What’s more, one of those four teams was guaranteed to make the conference finals, when most of the time it was really the Battle of Alberta in the Smythe Division finals that decided who went to the Cup finals.
There’s also the matter of two divisions having eight teams and two having seven. The old Patrick Division had six teams while the other three had five; however, since the Penguins and Devils were both terrible for much of the 80s, the issue of unfairness didn’t come up as much as it could have. But take the 1987-88 season when the Rangers (82 points) and Penguins (81 points) each missed the playoffs while the Hartford Whalers (77 points) nabbed the fourth and final spot in the Adams Division. Think the Rangers and Penguins were happy with that?
Of course, having a bad team make the playoffs isn’t always such a bad thing. In 1981-82, the Los Angeles Kings qualified with 63 points (not enough to make the playoffs in any other division) and knocked off the Edmonton Oilers (111 points) in the first round. Did the Kings deserve the chance to pull off arguably the greatest upset in NHL history? Answer: Who cares? That was an amazing series that nobody will ever forget, particularly Game 3, aka the Miracle on Manchester.
Now, should the proposed plan be implemented, it will be impossible for a team as bad as the 1981-82 Kings to make the playoffs, but it still opens up the possibility for unlikely story lines.